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CIA Nominee Can’t Evade Drone Questions at Senate Hearing

Posted on Feb 7, 2013
AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta

John Brennan testifies on Capitol Hill on Thursday during his confirmation hearing as CIA director.

By Thomas Hedges, Center for Study of Responsive Law

The confirmation hearing of John Brennan to become CIA director began and ended Thursday with questions about his oversight of the drone program that has been responsible for the deaths of at least 2,629 people, according to the U.K.-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Members of peace and social justice group Code Pink interrupted Brennan’s opening remarks before the Senate Intelligence Committee five or six times before being cleared from the room.

“Reject John Brennan,” they advised Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the committee. “Senator Feinstein,” one woman asked as security escorted her from the room, “are your children more important than the children of Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia?”

Many activist groups like Code Pink have been criticizing the Central Intelligence Agency for the way it’s handled certain responsibilities it inherited from the Pentagon after 9/11. They contend that the agency, which traditionally had provided intelligence for the military, has itself become a paramilitary group with limited oversight from Congress and the luxury of protecting its activities through classification.

Although the drone warfare program has dominated headlines in many of the major news outlets, it seemed lower on the agenda for most senators on the committee Thursday. Some focused their queries instead on the releasing of records from the Bush-era torture program, which ended in 2009. There were questions about the treatment of specific high-ranking al-Qaida members, what information Brennan would consider sharing with Congress if his nomination was confirmed, and how he would control leaks of classified information while keeping the public informed.


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But Sens. Ron Wyden, Susan Collins and Angus King chose to press Brennan on the legality and effectiveness of the drone warfare program.

“The Fifth Amendment is pretty clear,” King said. “No deprivation of life, liberty or due process of law, and we’re depriving American citizens of their life when we target them in drone attacks. … Having the executive be the prosecutor, judge, jury and the executioner all in one is very contrary to the tradition of the laws.”

Brennan responded, “A court of law is used to determine guilt in past actions, which is different from the decisions that are made on the battlefield. … None of those actions [drone attacks] are to determine past guilt. The decisions that are made are to take action so that we prevent a future action, so that we protect American lives.”

The CIA has given little to no evidence to bolster its claim that its targets posed imminent threat to American life. Many critics like Col. Larry Wilkerson have countered that those targets were not necessarily in hiding and could easily have been captured and imprisoned rather than killed.

Innocents were not discussed at Thursday’s hearing. Wyden asked questions about U.S.-born cleric and al-Qaida member Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011. The senator wanted to know why al-Awlaki couldn’t have been detained instead of killed. Al-Awlaki’s son, Abdulrahman, who was killed in a later drone attack, was not mentioned.

Absent from the confirmation hearing were the oft-used testimonies of colleagues and other government officials. The lack of witnesses could be construed as odd, especially in light of the controversy surrounding Brennan’s nomination.

After almost three hours of questioning, Brennan reassured committee members that those who are put on President Obama’s kill list have the capacity for terror at their fingertips.

“They will kill us if they can,” he said.

This article was made possible by the Center for Study of Responsive Law.

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